Get Sunburned Easily? A Dermatologist Explains 5 Reasons Why

Close-up of a sunburn marks on a woman's back

July 27, 2022

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Robin Ashinoff, M.D.
In the hot summer sun, anyone can burn, but are there certain things that make your skin more prone to it?

Some skin types, underlying conditions and environments can make it easier for your skin to burn. You need to be especially careful in the sun if you have:

1. Fair skin

Melanin is the pigment that defends your skin against the sun’s rays. When your unprotected skin is exposed to the sun, melanin can cause it to darken. Since the amount of melanin you can produce is determined by genetics, some people are more prone to burn, while others tan. 

Although any skin tone can burn, people with naturally darker skin are less likely to do so. Therefore, sun protection is always encouraged regardless of skin tone since both sunburns and suntans are signs of damage. 

2. Conditions that weaken your immune system

If you have an autoimmune disease such as systemic lupus erythematosus, or lupus, or another medical condition that weakens your immune system such as HIV, the UV light from the sun can cause more damage to your skin. 

When the immune system is suppressed, you are more susceptible to develop skin cancers from the DNA damage caused by sun exposure.

3. A family history of skin cancer 

A family history of skin cancer or inherited conditions can increase the risk of skin cancer after sun exposure and sunburns.

  • Every single sunburn increases a person’s risk of developing skin cancer because the UV radiation damage from sunlight accumulates over time.
  • Experiencing a higher volume of sunburns earlier in life is linked to developing melanoma skin cancer later on.

In some individuals, skin cancer is a hereditary condition and the increased risk of it can be passed from parent to child. It is important to be aware of your family’s history of skin cancer and other skin diseases when enjoying the sun so you can take the proper preventative measures, such as more sunscreen applications, protective clothing, time in the shade and getting screened for skin cancer by a dermatologist. 

4. Freckles or moles

Freckles and liver spots occur as a result of sun exposure and are not a normal part of aging. They develop from an increase in melanin as the skin’s natural way to protect itself from the sun. People with freckles have skin that is more sensitive to light, and therefore more prone to sunburn. 

Moles or nevi are collections of pigment-producing cells or melanocytes in the skin. The sun’s UV light can also change the structure of a mole and increase the chance of it becoming cancerous. 

It is important to conduct self-checks of your freckles and moles often. Get in touch with a local dermatologist if your freckles or moles are: 

  • asymmetrical, 
  • have uneven borders, 
  • are multiple colors (not just one shade of brown), 
  • are larger than six millimeters in diameter, 
  • or begin to change shape.  

5. Exposure in high altitudes or tropical climates 

The sun’s intensity is stronger the closer to the equator you go. The UV index measures the amount of time it may take in the sun to produce a sunburn. In these areas the UV index can easily climb to an 8 or above, which are indicators that sun protection needs to be used at all times. 

At higher altitudes there is less atmosphere between your skin and the sun to offer protection. Being physically closer to the sun increases UV intensities, therefore, higher altitudes quicken the time it takes for skin to burn.

What can I do to protect my skin? 

There are many factors that can contribute to your skin being more sensitive to sun exposure. For those with higher risks it is recommended to:

Any type of skin can burn under any circumstances when it is unprotected and exposed to the sun’s rays. It is important for everyone to practice sun safety when out in the sun, especially in the hot summer months. 
 

Next Steps & Resources:

The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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